By Claire Lai Lam
Of the many dog training methods that are available currently, one of the methods that I’ve found the most useful when working with my dog is clicker training. Married psychologists Marian Breland Bailey and Keller Breland originated the idea for clicker training during their research into humane methods of animal training. This is a brief overview of the clicker training method and there are reams of extra info available in books and online.
Most dogs, if not all, enjoy repeating behaviours that have positive consequences and avoid behaviours that have negative consequences – this kind of learning is known as operant conditioning. We can use this information when training our dogs by choosing a behaviour that we want repeated and rewarding that behaviour whenever it occurs. Using a clicker is one of the most effective ways of training your dog by positively reinforcing desired behaviours. Read more...
A clicker is a small plastic box that easily fits into your hand and usually has a clip so that it can be attached to your belt loop. They are fairly inexpensive, ranging from R20 upwards at most pet supply shops and have a metal strip or a plastic button that gives off a loud “click” sound when pressed. A click is the signal that lets your dog know that they have carried out the desired behaviour. The click is also paired with a food treat that your dog can’t resist.
If your dog is afraid of the loud click, or you don’t have a clicker on hand, you can also click a pen or use lid of a jar that has a freshness pop-up button (found on baby food, jam, etc.)
Advantages of clicker training
- A clicker marks the exact behaviour that you want your dog to perform.
- It has a distinctive sound that your dog will be able to hear in noisy places.
- It is also a better marker for behaviour than words of praise as it is quick and consistent. Think about it: “good boy” takes longer to say than to click and your tone could vary with your mood or health (have a cold?).
- Can be used for puppies or adult dogs.
- Clicker training is also great for those who are self-conscious about praising their dog effusively in front of others à “That’s my boy! Yes, that’s a goooood boy! Oooh aren’t you a clever little sausage” and so forth.
- Amazingly your dog can even learn to discriminate your click from other trainers’ clicks (even if you use the same clicker!).
Preparing your dog for clicker training – priming the clicker
Prepare about 20 small treats – you can put these in a small moonbag (very retro) or other container that you can access easily (no Tupperware here!). I find that a small sandwich bag in your pocket will work well. Make sure that your dog can’t see the treats. Click and treat and repeat until all the treats are finished. After several treats your dog should catch on and be thinking: “Oh man, I’m in heaven here! I love you clicky thing!” Be prepared to be faced with a crazy dog stare.
Don’t make any comments clicking; no “good dog” or “that’s my girl” – you don’t want to confuse your dog. Your dog is learning that the click means awesome rewards. Repeat the 20 clicks/treats exercise over a few days at different times of the day and sometimes several times a day until your dog makes a solid association between the click and happy rewards. You will know that your dog understands when your dog reacts to a click by looking at you immediately and expectantly, waiting for a treat. Your dog is ready to train!
When you start clicker training in earnest, it’s a good idea to prime the clicker before every training session – just 2-3 treats. Think of it as a warm-up for your dog.
Example: if I’m teaching my dog to sit (a natural behaviour), I can wait until I notice him going into a sitting position and click the moment his bum hits the ground and treat him immediately.
It’s preferable that you wait for the desired behaviour to occur naturally, but if for some reason you don’t have the time or patience you can elicit the behaviour.
Example: lure your dog into a sitting position by touching a treat to his nose and (at a moderate speed) raising it above his forehead; your dog should go into a sit. Be careful of raising the treat too high or too fast as this will elicit a jumping action!
Timing is everything: always click the moment the desired behaviour takes place, always treat the moment you’ve clicked. I like to have a few treats tucked into the same hand that’s holding the clicker, but this might seem clumsy at first. Don’t give up! – it takes a bit of practice to get the coordination right.
At this stage you’re probably wondering when you get to say “S-i-i-i-i-t” á la Barbara Woodhouse. Dogs speak ‘Dog’, not English, so a command is only meaningful once it is associated with a behaviour on many occasions. Once your dog carries out the desired behaviour on a regular basis, you can name the behaviour, in this case: “Sit”. Pair the word and the clicked behaviour over several repetitions. It should look something like this:
command – click – treat
Gradually start alternating the use of the clicker and treat, for example:
command – click – treat x2
command – click – treat x1
and so forth...
Mix it up so that your dog won’t know whether they will be treated or not. If your dog doesn’t respond when you only give a command, then you’ve moved too fast. Take a few steps back and click-treat the behaviour a few times before moving on to command-click-treat, etc. Taper this off until you are only using the command and occasional treats without the clicker. You can then move onto a new command such as “down”. Note that more complex behaviours will have to be broken down into smaller parts.
If you click at the wrong time or for the wrong behaviour (we all do…), forgive yourself, stay calm and start again – you might confuse your dog a little, but dogs are usually smarter at this training thing than we think.
Treats that your dog might enjoy
- Low-fat hot dog sausage cut into thin slices and then each slice cut into quarters
- Low-fat cheese
- Dry boerewors
- Biltong shavings
- Cooked chicken (winner!)
- Liver bread
- Liver biltong
- Peanut butter treats (recipe)
Not all dogs enjoy the same treats; find what works for your dog. Remember to keep your treats healthy and really small – you don’t want your dog filling up and going for an afternoon snooze in the middle of training! Treats should also be small enough that your dog can eat it in one bite, rather than having to chew it.
Of course, not all dogs are food-driven and other reinforcers can be used, such as attention, throwing a ball, a favourite toy, but it’s worth starting with treats. Many people who have persevered with clicker training, have found that it has changed the way that they think about dog training. It also enhances your own patience. I’ve used the clicker to train my dog to touch, retrieve and find objects. He can also do a few tricks that have entertainment value like marching and playing dead; I’m still working on him making me a cup of tea
You can find clicker classes here or contact your local vet or closest dog training school - happy clicking!